The things you need to know about arranging an alternative funeral
If you’re reading this because someone has died, I’m so sorry that you find yourself in this situation. I hope that the information below will help you to put together a meaningful funeral that is a genuine reflection of the person who has died, whilst also helping you to process your grief.
Here are a few things you should know.
1. There are no rules where funerals are concerned
There are conventions and traditions in every society and culture, but you don’t have to conform to them. A ritual without relevance is just a formality. An emotionally intelligent funeral professional will be able to help you put together something that works for you and your situation. You can create the funeral you want and need to say goodbye.
2. An alternative funeral is about so much more than colourful coffins
It’s about the whole approach, from how the person who has died is cared for, to the words that are shared at the funeral and how difficult emotions around the death are handled.
Eco-friendly coffins, alternative vehicles and natural burials are now mainstream and available from all funeral directors, even those with a more traditional approach.
3. Appoint a funeral director who will listen
Find a funeral director who will work flexibly to facilitate the funeral you want and need to have. A good funeral director will be able to support you by listening to what you have to say rather than selling you a standard funeral package.
Just because you’re already working with a funeral director, doesn’t mean you have to stay with them. Find someone who understands your needs and change funeral directors if necessary, even if they’ve already collected the person who has died.
Using a funeral director is not a legal requirement. You can be the funeral director if you choose to be. You can take care of the person who has died at home with the support of a home funeral guide from your community.
4. Create a funeral that’s relevant to the circumstances
An alternative funeral doesn’t have to be anything crazy. Alternative doesn’t mean that the funeral has to be turned into a celebration or a party. It might be that a crazily shaped coffin, fireworks and champagne are relevant and meaningful to the person who has died as well as suitable for the circumstances of their death. But it might be that something simple that allows people to express the extent of their sadness is a fitting alternative to a traditional funeral. It could be as simple as close family and friends sitting in contemplative silence in the chapel, listening to favourite music on repeat or taking some time to meditate in the presence of the person who has died.
Grief is complicated – a mix of sadness, regret, anger, gratitude and joy with no set timeline or structure. Allowing space at the funeral for all those emotions is important.
5. Modern belief systems can be complicated
It’s possible to have a blended faith funeral, where a minister can work with a minister from a different faith, or even a non-religious celebrant, to reflect all aspects of the person who has died and serve the needs of the people attending the funeral.
For example, I recently worked with an Imam and a celebrant to put together a funeral for a lady who had died tragically in her early twenties. Her family were from a traditional Muslim background, but her friends were in their twenties and had grown up in London. The Imam did the traditional prayers that were expected by the elder members of her family, whilst the celebrant shared stories of the life that she had lived and gave her friends the chance to share their memories in a safe and inclusive space.
6. You can hold the funeral wherever you like
A funeral doesn’t have to be held in a church or a crematorium. You could hold the funeral in a community centre, a school hall, a favourite pub or even your own garden (see some ideas here). By taking the funeral out of the crematorium, you won’t have to conform to strict time constraints.
It’s possible to separate the funeral ceremony from the cremation. It might be that you want to have the coffin present at the ceremony in an alternative venue, followed by a simple cremation at the crematorium with no one in attendance. It might be that you choose to have a direct cremation service and then create a memorial service with the ashes present a few weeks later.
7. Alternative doesn’t mean expensive
Just because you’ve chosen to do something differently, doesn’t mean it needs to be expensive. By taking the time to think about the elements of the funeral that are important to you and working with a funeral professional who is flexible, you can create the funeral that you want and need to have.
For example, it may be that you don’t want a traditional coffin, expensive funeral cars, flowers or orders of service. You could purchase a simple cardboard coffin and then ask family and friends to decorate it at home. Everyone could travel to the funeral venue in their own cars, flowers from the family garden could be laid on the coffin and a friend or family member who is good with computers could put together a simple but meaningful order of service.
8. Make sure everyone understands what’s happening
If you’re going to do something a little different, make sure that you clearly explain what’s going to happen and why it’s going to happen so that everyone attending understands.
People have different experiences and expectations of funerals, and it can be alienating to attend a funeral that’s doesn’t conform to the normal structure, especially when overwhelmed by the reality of grief. It can be as simple as announcing ‘in the spirit of coming together to celebrate the many different parts of Joan’s life, we’re going to do things a little differently today’. Handhold those in attendance through what’s happening and why, and everyone can leave the funeral feeling as though their needs have been met.
9. A good funeral can help you to grieve
A good funeral is created with the belief that funerals are about the dead but for the benefit of those left behind – the living. Taking the time to put together a relevant and meaningful funeral can be a profound and transformational experience.